Ram Bahadur grows rice and wheat on his two bigha of land, roughly one acre, in Kamal Pur Bichlika, one of seven villages in Mohanlalganj tehsil of Uttar Pradesh. In a good year, his land yields around 20 quintals of rice and 14 quintals of wheat, of which the 50-year-old farmer keeps half to feed his family of five; he must sell the rest. “What we earn from farming is not enough to take care of our responsibilities – education for our children and our medical care,” he said.
Kamal Pur Bichlika is around 50 kilometres from Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, a state where 92 per cent of cultivators are like Ram Bahadur – small and marginal farmers trying to scrape a living on half an acre to a couple of acres.
None of the farmers from Kamal Pur Bichlika have been able to join the farmers’ protests 500 kilometres away in Delhi, but they all condone the reasons for the “kisan andolan” (farmer’s protest) in Delhi. “Small farmers like us don’t get a decent rate from either private traders or the government. We produce the food, but we are the last to eat,” he said.
The village in Lucknow district has 472 households and a majority of them are engaged in agriculture. Most houses are cemented with thatched cattle sheds outside. The narrow kutcha roads have dung cakes drying in the mild winter sun.
A small stream runs through the village but the water is not sufficient for irrigation. Most farmers have dug borewells to tap groundwater for their crops. “I spend around 3,000 rupees for diesel per bigha of paddy to run the tubewell,” said Ram Bahadur, who has two tubewells in his field to irrigate his two bighas.
‘Farming alone is not enough’
Sarita Pal, 33, is a farmer who owns one bigha of land, a cow and a buffalo. She has sunk three tubewells to grow rice and wheat. She says the motor is very slow and it takes up to five hours to irrigate her half acre of land, pushing up her expenditure on diesel.
“I sell to the bichauliye (middlemen) who come to the village. After deducting what I spend on diesel, fertilisers, pesticides, etc., I get roughly 10,000 rupees per [crop] season,” she said. “Farming alone is not enough. It’s only because of my husband’s income that we are able to survive,” she says, referring to her husband Awadh Pal Yadav’s job as a watchman in Lucknow city.
All the farmers in this village sell directly to bichauliye who arrive at the farm gate at harvest time. The buyers are also moneylenders who charge anything from two to five per cent a month, which works out to an extortionary rate of 24 per cent to 60 per cent per annum.
“If I’m in need of money to dig a borewell or buy diesel, I end up borrowing from a local middleman. When my harvest is ready, I have to sell it to him at whatever rate he states,” says Awadh Pal, explaining the unforgiving agreements that small farmers like him are regularly forced into with moneylenders who double up as buyers at harvest time. That rate is much lower than what Awadh Pal would get at the mandi.
“I usually sell 20 quintals of rice whenever I go to the mandi and get around 36,000 rupees (the minimum support price or MSP for one quintal of rice is about 1,835 rupees). When I sell here in the village, I get only around 24,000 rupees [for the same amount],” he said; a difference which is hard to ignore.
Awadh Pal has sold his harvest in the mandi a few times. He, his brother and a few others hire a tractor together and go to the Kisan Sadhan Sahkari Samiti to sell their harvest. The transportation costs about Rs. 40 per quintal when the whole tractor is at capacity (25 quintals) – an expense of about Rs. 1,000 that they proportionately share.
“If you’re lucky, the government officer won’t be corrupt and will give you the cheque directly. If not, you’ll have to bribe him; this has not happened to me so far,” he said.
Their daughter Prachi is 13 years old and studies in Class 8 in the village junior school. “Prachi wants to be a teacher when she grows up. She has a keen interest in Hindi. My son Saurabh is in Class 4,” Sarita said, her face lighting up with pride as spoke of her school-going children. “We hardly have enough to survive. How can we afford the fees for higher education?” she added, worried about their future.
Farm gate sales
In their late twenties, Rani (she prefers to use this name) and her sister-in-law Manju (she prefers to use this name) work together on one bigha of land (0.4 acres), growing rice and wheat.They also used to grow crops like potatoes but the women say marauding monkeys and nilgai (Asian antelope) would destroy them.
This land in Kamal Pur Bichlika belongs to their husbands who were brothers. Rani’s husband – the older of the two brothers – passed away some years ago but the families stayed together. Manju lets Rani do most of the talking as they take a break from working in the fields to talk to us.
“The price for everything went up during the lockdown, but the price of our harvest went down,” said Rani. Both women end up selling their crop to middlemen at whatever price they offer as they come to their doorstep to buy the harvest. They say they can’t leave their children behind to sell at big markets where they may get better deals.
Rani’s son Ritesh is in Class 4 and Manju’s sons Prankur and Himanshu are in Class 5 and Class 6 respectively. “No parent ever wants their child to become a farmer. We want our children to study and get employment outside [the village]. Our job is to educate them and bring them up, but we can’t hold lathis over their head to make them study,” she added, smiling.
They don’t have much hope for the farmers’ protests against the new laws. “No matter what the laws are, the ground reality will remain the same – our costs [of input] are rising and our income is falling. How will a farmer survive?” said Rani.
‘Andolan is the only thing left to do‘
Suresh Kumar, 40, has four bigha of land on which he grows rice, wheat, peas, onions, potatoes and mustard. He sells his harvest to traders who come to the village to purchase his crop. His four children study in the government primary and middle schools in the village. Suresh says he will stop their formal education once they leave this school. “There is so much inflation, so I can either invest in my farm or educate my children,” he said. His next crop is potato and mustard and he has already spent Rs 2,000-3,000 on insecticide and fertilizers.
Suresh has also invested in four tubewells, about 80-100 feet deep, in his fields, each one costing around Rs. 80,000. “Diesel to run the tubewell comes to 80-85 rupees per litre. I spend up to 8,000 rupees [for one bigha] just on diesel,” he said. Taking into account the expenses on fertilisers and insecticides, he said “I make barely 2,000-4,000 rupees at the end of six months [per crop] when everything is cut and sold. We are helpless, but this is the only thing we know [to earn a living].”
When asked about the farmer protests at Delhi border, Suresh said, “When man faces these kinds of problems, andolan is the only thing left to do. Our lives [and livelihoods] are being sold off at such low rates while the price of everything else is rising. What will a farmer eat and what will he save?”
Garima Sadhwani is a student at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. This is her second article for PARI. The first, A fragile future for Chinhat pottery appeared in PARI Education on December 1, 2020. She says: “With the ongoing farm bills’ protest, I was lucky to be able to do ground reporting for this story. I learnt a lot from the farmers I spoke to. They are both aware and knowledgeable about these issues.”